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Are children better at learning languages?

    Table of contents
  1. inb4
  2. Introduction & context
  3. Occam's razor
  4. Advantages that children have over adults
    1. They don't really have a choice
    2. Endless free time and constant immersion
    3. Enthusiastic support from day one
    4. Not afraid to make mistakes
  5. Segue: remember all those spelling quizzes from school
  6. Advantages that adults have over children
    1. Ability to actively seek what we want
    2. We know how to actively study
    3. Familiarity with general grammar concepts
  7. Actionable takeaways

inb4 (§)'s_law_of_headlines

Introduction & context (§)

People who learn a new language as a teenager or adult know that it's a very long and difficult process. There comes a time in every language learner's life where they wonder why learning their native language as a child seems to have been comparatively very easy.

There is a popular notionww that the reason we can learn our native language so well is because childrens' brains are more plastic — pliable, moldable, teachable. While I'm not opposed to believing that children have some level of biological advantage, I think this argument is overblown and serves to be a conversation-stopper more than anything else.

I am not a linguist nor a neuroscientist nor a psychologist. I didn't read any studies before writing this article and don't have any sources to cite. Sorry. The purpose of this article is not to definitively answer the question but to exercise critical thinking in the face of Claims From The Internet. I want to come up with actionable takeaways instead of just rolling over. I am a layman on this topic and so are you [1]. Even if I had read some neuroscience journal papers, I've heard too much about the flakiness and irreproducibility of psychological studies that I wouldn't actually feel any more confident. I would probably just cite what sounds right to me and ignore the rest. Purists will be annoyed that I can admit this and continue writing anyway. Such is the nature of understanding topics beyond my own expertise.

[1] probably

Occam's razor (§)

Oh look, it's another explanation of Occam's razor on the internet. Trust me, I wish I didn't have to do this, but there are too many peopleww who think Occam's razor means "the simplest explanation is probably correct". Even Contact gets it wrong, and, as far as I can tell, everything else in that movie is scientifically accurate.

The problem is in the word "simple". If the question is "how do birds fly?" then we could very simply answer it with "magic". In fact, this simple answer could cover just about anything we don't understand. But it's not correct.

A better phrasing of Occam's razor is "one should prefer the explanation that makes the fewest assumptions". To say that birds fly with magic is to make many assumptions: that magic exists, that birds have magic and we don't, but we were able to put that magic into airplanes...?. I also choose the word "prefer" because there's no need to smugly pat myself on the back for picking what's "probably correct" when the whole point is to objectively recognize what I know and don't.

When the question is "why is language learning easy for children but hard for adults", then the answer of neuroplasticity starts to sound like magic, and there is not much in the way of quantifying the difference between child and adult neuroplasticity. The difference is just enough to explain away the question [2], but not too much or else adults would be totally incapable of learning anything at all.

Remember, this article is written by a layman using critical thinking to evaluate what I've heard. As such, the remainder of this article lists advantages that children have over adults and vice-versa without resorting to such assumptions.

[2] I still haven't cited anything

Advantages that children have over adults (§)

They don't really have a choice (§)

Learning your first language is pretty much sink or swim, just without the threat of watery death usually associated with sinking and swimming. You've got to admit there's an element of pressure for children to learn a first language. How else will they ask for cookies?

When I am reading or listening to something in Korean and I get frustrated or bored because I don't understand it, I can just turn it off and go do something else in English. There is very little external pressure for me to persevere. Even in foreign language classes, where some teachers strive for 100% target language in the class at all times, of course peers will use English amongst each other. Children don't really have those kinds of alternatives. They only other form of communication they have is crying.

Endless free time and constant immersion (§)

Babies got nothing to do. No work, no school, no obligations whatsoever. If I could sit around listening to my target language all day I'd progress a lot faster too.

An adult learner first has to subtract sleep and responsibilities from their daily allotted 24 hours, then with the remainder has to decide whether learning a language is really important enough to give that time up. Especially because spending X hours on something we're bad at is tougher to do than spending the same X hours on something we're already good at.

It's also important to realize that language is ultimately nothing more than a tool for communication. It's fun to romanticize the idea of learning an interesting language, but that's like romanticizing the idea of building an interesting hammer, which isn't of much use if you don't have anything to nail down. I read this comment recently and it stuck with me:

Whenever I hear a native English speaker idly thinking of learning a language for "business reasons," this is the comparison I draw in my head ... it subtly hints at the reality: even with your hard-won language ability, you'll still need to pair it with another skill[set] to get the job. At minimum something like marketing, editing, or translating. No one will pay you to just speak the language.

/u/xanthic_strath on How useful is Mandarin if you aren't Chinese?

Do you really want to dump hundreds or thousands of your limited life hours into learning the foreign language, only to reach 'competence', when you could be developing your other skills into mastery? You still have to have everything else that makes the language worth using. It's a hard sell.

My desire to learn Korean is purely interest-based, because I enjoy it, so I'm not worried about this part personally. I recognize that the situation is different for people learning English which might be the only means of getting into a career field they want to pursue.

Enthusiastic support from day one (§)

From the moment a child is born, it's surrounded by a group of people who

This group is often known as the "family" or so I hear.

Compare that with adult learners who

MotivateKorean [4] often said that when you're learning vocabulary, there is an important moment where you "make it yours". Discovering an opportunity to use a new word, and succesfully using it, and hearing it come out of your own mouth contributes much more to your learning than just doing flashcards. For children this will occur naturally and frequently in their daily life. For adults, especially those learning on their own in their home country, it won't.

[3] You've probably seen Stephen Krashen demonstrate comprehensible input. It's a good lesson, for sure, but in practicality it's extremely difficult to find material that matches your i+1. Partly because it's hard to define your current i in the first place. The parent-child relationship excels at this in a way that a language teacher or tutor or internet material simply can not. My advice is to not worry about i+1 too too much. I have been listening to TTMIK's Iyagi since nearly the beginning, and although it is still above my skill level, I can feel that my comprehension has been going up. Don't get stuck in an endless search for the perfect i+1 material, just find something that isn't impossible and get started.

[4] The channel still exists but he has removed videos of himself and handed the channel over to someone else.

Not afraid to make mistakes (§)

I was going to make a separate header for "not expected to output for a long time" but let's just combine those thoughts here. When an adult starts learning a language, they'd like to start using it sooner rather than later. Even those who emphasize input-before-output like Matt vs. Japan [5] understand that adult learners don't want to, and in fact shouldn't, refrain from talking for two years like children do. Children have the advantage that nobody expects them to say anything for a long time; they get to sit back and soak it up first.

When an adult learner starts texting or talking in their new language, they'd prefer to not make mistakes. Some are more embarrassed about mistakes than others, but I think it's true for all of us. I for one would rather forgo a thought than blunder it.

Of course, mistakes can be very productive because you can get feedback instantly and in context which are pretty much the two best things for feedback to be. It's just very difficult to overcome the pride. See also the previous point about how nobody wants to listen to you stumbling all the time and suddenly I'm even more self-conscious about opening my mouth.

[5] he probably would prefer that I link to first and foremost, but truthfully his youtube channel is a better resource than the site at the moment

Segue: remember all those spelling quizzes from school (§)

The whole premise of this article is an adult trying to figure out why learning a new language is so hard when learning their native language was so easy. So to that end it's important to remember that you had mandatory English classes every single year for, like, twelve years. So when your math classes progressed from arithmetic > algebra > geometry > trig > calculus, and your science classes progressed from biology > chemistry > physics, all the while there was English > English > English > English > English. Literacy rates haven't always been as high as they are now. Children learning to read and write is in fact a big undertaking and not as trivial as it seems in our distant memories.

Just take a look at the vocabulary and expressiveness of a ten year old and remind yourself that that is what ten solid years of uninterrupted native exposure results in. If you can beat that level of comprehension and expressiveness in your foreign language in under ten years (I bet you can), then you're beating the pace you set by learning your native language. I'm currently at 1.5 years of my leisurely pace of Korean studying and I can mostly comprehend teen level text as long as I'm allowed to use a dictionary (listening comp is a different story, but anyway). I know that if I had studied harder over this past year and a half I'd be a lot better, too.

I want to restate this point: It seems to me that learning the second language is not actually harder than the first. We just didn't feel and/or don't remember how hard it was and how much help we had the first time around.

Advantages that adults have over children (§)

Brady: You feel so omnipotent when you're with little kids, and you understand things so much better. And we adults are like these gods, and they're trying to understand nuance that they can't possibly understand and you occasionally have these waves of emotions where you're like "I just know so much more than you. I can impart so much knowledge on to you and you don't understand this but I do".

Brady: Like a kid'll go near a lake or something, and you'll be like "don't go near the lake" and you'll stop them from going in the lake. But you know so much more about why that is. You know about drowning and oxygen and swimming and all these things. You have so much more knowledge than them. And they're just these little nothings that know nothing.

Grey: When I'm around little kids, probably the thought that is in my head the most often is "you're just so useless at everything". Like you can't do... you can't do anything. You don't know anything about anything and you can't do anything. And you're just this huge burden on society that we tolerate because eventually you'll grow up and you will be useful. But not today.

Brady: But doesn't that make you feel good because you are useful? You're like "one day you be mighty like me. One day you will be able to buy food. One day you will be able to drive a car. One day you will be able to open a door, but now you can't. I am the god that can do these things". And you and the other adults look at each other knowingly like "we know, we know the stuff. We know how to open a door. They don't".

Grey: I guess I don't derive feelings of superiority by surrounding myself with uselesness.

Hello Internet #29, around the 1:00:00 mark.

Ability to actively seek what we want (§)

When a very young child is learning their first language, they accumulate vocabulary mostly according to the whims of the world around them: what their family talks about, what's on TV. An older child can pick out books but will have difficulty really searching for something. The older you get, the more accurately you can search the internet, pick materials for your skill level, ask (well-formed, please!) questions on forums, etc.

We know how to actively study (§)

Earlier I gave the children a point because they get constant immersion for free all the time, but that's passive immersion. Adults can do deliberate study and review and use tools like Anki to make sure that, even when we forget something, we'll get reminded of it in due time.

Familiarity with general grammar concepts (§)

Learning a new language requires learning new grammar, obviously, but there are plenty of concepts and patterns that will be the same. When you learn the grammar for expressing "if A then B", you don't have to relearn the entire concept of 'if' as a baby does, you just have to learn the new words for saying it. The same goes for prefixes like anti-/un- or suffixes like -ic/-al and so forth.

Actionable takeaways (§)

If you're keeping score, you may feel like overall the kids come out on top. Even if an actively studying adult can outpace a child's language learning, the amount of effort and difficulty in reaching fluency makes it feel like more of a slog. However, I think this is better than simply throwing our hands in the air and saying that children just have special plasticy brains and they have the biological advantage and there's nothing we can do about it. Now that I've given my reasons for not believing in that as a primary cause, we can find some actionable takeaways by applying babies' strategies to our own learning.

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